Chapter Twenty-Two

Harry was just as grumpy as before when asked, for the second time in as many days, to meet with 'Hawk and Ocelot, but when they got to the location (it was a different one this time--a lot of people owed Harry favors, so he spread them around liberally) and explained the situation to him, he understood.

"So now you got somebody muckin' in your personal life," he said, his expression sober. "That ain't good." It was the understatement of the year, but something in his eyes told the two runners that he was very much aware of that.

"Not just that," Ocelot told him, "but now we got reason to believe that whoever's got the brother of this doodad is somewhere close by. So either they're gonna find us, or we're gonna find them."

"We'd like it to be the latter," 'Hawk added without a trace of humor. "And soon, if at all possible."

Harry examined the two men sitting across the table from him, noting that, while they looked like they might have slept since he last saw them, their frazzled demeanors had not calmed. When he spoke again, he chose his words carefully. "Guys...are you sure it wouldn't be better to...just get rid of this thing? I mean, what's the worst that'll happen if you do? The guys that have the other one will end up with 'em both, sell 'em for a big pile of dough, and you two are off the hook." His gaze settled on Winterhawk, and his expression softened. "I know this is about your friend, 'Hawk, but how far are you willing to go for this?"

Winterhawk shook his head wearily. "It isn't just that, Harry. If it were only money, I'd have ditched the thing in a minute. And if were only about Toby..." he sighed "...hell, I don't know what I would do at this point if it were only about Toby. But it isn't. Not anymore." Taking a deep breath, he told Harry what Trixy had told him and Ocelot about the staff's powers, and what would happen when it was reunited with its lost mate.

The fixer listened in silence, looking back and forth between 'Hawk and Ocelot as 'Hawk told the story. It sure looked to him like both of them believed it. "And..." he said when the story was done, "you're sure this Trixy is reliable enough to believe that from?"

"She's a Dog shaman, Harry," Ocelot said. "She'd kill herself before she'd betray friends."

"And a damn good one," 'Hawk added. "Not much in the offensive capabilities department, but when it comes to divinations and such, she's the one we trust."

"Name sounds familiar," Harry mused, half to himself. "Dog shaman..." He shook his head. "Musta been a long time ago. But that's not solvin' our problem. If you two are determined you're gonna find out who has the other one o' these things, then I ain't gonna talk you out of it. I got some calls out...if you'll sit here for a few minutes, I'll go see if any of 'em have turned up anything yet. If not, I'll put a little more pressure on 'em."

"Thanks, Harry," Ocelot said. He got up and began pacing around the room, unable to remain still in his chair for any longer.

Winterhawk nodded. "Yes."

Harry grinned. "Now, don't you two go gettin' all mushy on me, or I won't know how to act. Just sit still and I'll be back in a few."

After Harry left the room, Ocelot came back over and turned a chair around, straddling it. "You think he's gonna turn up anything?"

"I certainly hope so." Winterhawk sighed. "Now I'm beginning to wish we had grabbed one of those chaps who attacked us at the bar...p'raps we could have done a little persuasion of our own."

"If they weren't just hired muscle," Ocelot pointed out. "But yeah, it'd feel good right about now to apply a little fist to a little face. All this waitin's drivin' me nuts."

It was only a few minutes before Harry returned, but from the look on his face, it appeared that he had found something useful.

Ocelot leaped up off the chair. "You got something?"

Harry paused to resume his seat before speaking. "Maybe, maybe not," he cautioned. "I'm not sure, but it's better than we had before."

"I don't like this," Winterhawk said. "I don't like it at all." Almost unconsciously he tightened his grip on the bag containing the staff. "Why do I feel as though I'm marching right into the lion's den with a sign reading, 'FREE MEAT'?"

Ocelot didn't answer. He knew that this sort of thing was the way 'Hawk dealt with being nervous about a situation, and if it helped him, then great. He wished he had a similar outlet, because he was just as nervous as the mage--perhaps even more so.

"Do you know anything about this Albrecht chap?" 'Hawk asked suddenly, after a short silence hung in the air.

Ocelot shrugged. They were driving through Downtown, headed toward the Barrens location Harry had given them for the meet. "Not a lot. He's a dangerous dude--somebody you don't want to cross. About as big as Harry in the shadow biz, but without the...finesse."

If the situation hadn't been so grim, 'Hawk would have gotten a good laugh out of that. Saying someone was like Harry but without the finesse would be somewhat akin to saying they were like an elephant, but without the weight. "Sounds like just the sort of fellow I'd enjoy spending my time with..." he muttered darkly. He had been annoyed at the way events had transpired, but as time went on, his annoyance had slowly been turning to trepidation.

Harry's news had been in the form of some intel he had gotten off the street that there was a new shadow team in town--one that was looking for a good fixer because they had a hot item they needed to get rid of. Both Winterhawk's and Ocelot's ears had perked up at that, and as they continued to listen, they became more and more sure that these were the people they were seeking. Harry hadn't had any specific information about the team itself except that their decker went by the name of 'Rook,' but his own deckers had been able to track at least some of his progress as he searched for possible fixers. "Looks like they looked at me, Albrecht, Calisto, and your old friend Gabriel," he'd told them.

"There's irony for you," 'Hawk had muttered under his breath to Ocelot.

Harry had looked at him funny but said nothing. "And from word I'm gettin', they picked Albrecht."

"Any idea why?" Ocelot had asked. "Just random, or they have a reason?"

Harry had shrugged. "Probably because they knew I'd put 'em through the third degree before I messed with 'em. Albrecht's good, but he relies on the intimidation factor where I just try to make sure I weed out the bad stuff before it gets to me. As for the other two, Gabriel's outta town--as you two probably know--and Calisto..." He'd shaken his head. "If they're smart they wouldn't mess with that fragger. Not fresh inta town, anyway."

Ocelot nodded. "So they're workin' with Albrecht. And you got no idea where they're hangin' out while they're in town?"

"Nope. Still got my ears out for that--shouldn't take long, though. You guys know as well as I do how hard it is to hide a new team in town for very long. But if you're in a hurry, you might want to go talk to Albrecht himself."

"How we gonna do that?" Ocelot had asked. "He must know we work for you--what are we gonna do, just walk up to his door and say, 'Hey--we want to talk to you?'"

"Hey, professional courtesy and all," Harry had told him. "I can probably set up a meet for you with him--get him to leave you alone--but that's about all I can do."

"You couldn't just talk to him for us?" 'Hawk had put in. "If it's a question of money--"

But Harry had shaken his head. "Nah, 'Hawk, this time it ain't money. See, Albrecht and me, we ain't what you'd call the best of friends. It goes back a long way, and I don't want to talk about it, but the bottom line is, you're gonna have to do this one on your own."

Ocelot and Winterhawk had exchanged glances, neither of them happy with this turn of events. "You said... 'get him to leave us alone'," the mage said. "How sure are you about that?" He indicated the bag. "I'd be reluctant to walk into a meet with this, but I'm even more reluctant to let loose of it."

"I'll set it up if you want," Harry had said. "No charge, even. And he'll leave ya alone. He knows what'll happen if he doesn't. I said we ain't the best of friends, but we can work around each other when we need to. He does this for me, I owe him a favor. Which means," he added, looking at them shrewdly, "that you two owe me a favor."

Of course. Nothing came without a price. But that was for another day. "Okay, Harry," Ocelot had said. "Set up the meet, and tell us where."

'Hawk had nodded. "I don't like it, but I don't see that we have another choice. If we can find out where this team is, then p'raps we'll finally see the end of this."

So here they were, several hours later, driving 'Hawk's clapped-out Americar toward the edge of the Barrens where the meet had been arranged. Ocelot had never heard of the bar where they were supposed to go, but a quick check with the public datanet and a few street contacts had confirmed its location (from the former) and the fact that it was a known hangout of several runners affiliated with Albrecht (from the latter). They were walking right into his territory, but they expected nothing less. All they had to go on now was their trust in Harry's ability to persuade the other fixer to conduct his business and allow them to leave peacefully.

"There's the place." Ocelot pointed ahead of them at a rather rundown-looking establishment with a sign above it proclaiming it to be "Murphy's Tavern." Actually, it took a bit of extrapolation to gather that, since time and vandalism had reduced the sign to "Mu ph 's Tav." The building itself housed not only Murphy's, but what looked like numerous apartments above it, and several other businesses--all of which were abandoned--in the adjoining suites. "He's probably got at least twenty different ways outta there--Harry says he likes to have his exits covered."

"It's not like we're any threat to the man," 'Hawk replied sourly. He was wearing a new suit and armored longcoat, neither of which he'd had time to have properly tailored; the staff had been carefully transferred from the leather duffel to a slightly oversized leather attache' case. Neither he nor Ocelot had thought it prudent to return home yet.

"I just hope Harry got things straightened out." Ocelot turned into the parking area next to Murphy's; it was full, but he managed to find a space near the back. It was one nice thing about the Americar--'Hawk never worried about getting it dented. Dents only added to its reputation as a car nobody would waste their time bothering with. "If not, we're walkin' into a world of hurt."

'Hawk nodded, already leaning back in preparation for the astral scan of the area he intended to make. He wasn't worried about Albrecht's people spotting him--he wasn't planning to do anything offensive, and any mage worth his salt would have done the same thing. Ocelot had even suggested that they might get less respect if they didn't at least make a stab at it. Still, he also wasn't planning to be obvious about it, and if he was able to slip by, that was all the more information they had on their side.

The scan took only a few minutes, during which time Ocelot sat back in the driver's seat and kept an eye on the area through the rearview mirror. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to them. That was a good sign, for now anyway.

'Hawk returned, sitting up and taking a deep breath. "There are a number of people in the back room," he said. "It doesn't appear that any of them are trying to hide. Seems our chap likes his shows of force."

Ocelot nodded. "That's what I've heard. How many?" He was already getting out of the car.

"Five, from the look of things. One magician, four chaps wired to the gills. No sign of our dwarf, though." He too got out of the car and, along with Ocelot, headed for the front door.

Inside, Murphy's Tavern looked like exactly what it purported to be: a working-class bar frequented by blue-collar types on their way home from work. The only thing that didn't fit with the image was the clientele itself: very few construction workers or truck drivers could afford the kind of cyber that was heavily in evidence on the individuals gathered around the scarred wooden bar or scattered among its heavy tables. As 'Hawk and Ocelot entered no one turned to look, but both of them could feel eyes on them nonetheless. "Here we go..." Ocelot said under his breath. "You ready?"

Ready as I'll ever be," 'Hawk replied in the same tone. As was almost always the case, now that he was actually here and there was no turning back, most of his nervousness seemed to have dropped away. Ocelot was never sure how much of it was an act.

The process for getting to see Albrecht was apparently an exercise in testing their patience. They had to talk to no less than four different people, passing inspection each time, before they were finally ushered up a flight of stairs and into a room behind an unmarked door. Ocelot had been requested--and had reluctantly agreed--to hand over the sawed-off shotgun and the Predator he kept under his coat, but seemed pleased that Albrecht's crack team of security consultants had missed his monowhip. 'Hawk wasn't carrying any weapons, and refused to surrender the attache' case. His resolve had been sufficient to convince them to get by with scanning it; when it didn't show up as weapon, explosive, or poison, they had allowed him to keep it.

"'Bout time..." Ocelot muttered as they finally opened the last door.

At least Albrecht wasn't big on entrances. He was there already, sitting back behind a table off to one side of the door, grinning. The two samurai flanking him--one ork, one human--had their HK227s pointed at the newcomers, which undoubtedly added to the dwarf's good mood. "So yer Harry's guys, eh?" he asked. "How's the ol' tub o' lard doin' these days, anyways?"

"We ain't here to talk about Harry," Ocelot said, stepping forward. The fact that one of the two guns tracked him perfectly while the other remained centered on 'Hawk didn't seem to bother him. "We need some info, and we hear you might be able to help us out."

"Info, huh? And what makes ya think I got any yer lookin' for, and if I did, that I'd let ya have it?"

"Oh, we're not asking you to let us have it," Winterhawk said, moving smoothly up next to Ocelot. The guns weren't bothering him any more than they had his companion. "We're quite willing to pay for it. Pay well," he added, meeting Albrecht's gaze. He had already noticed the elven woman in the shadows in the room's rear, along with the two other cybered types lounging off to both sides.

Albrecht shrugged. "Don't know if I got anything ya want, but talk away. If I hear somethin' I like, maybe I'll find somethin' you like."

Once again Ocelot spoke. "We hear there's a new team in town, lookin' to unload a hot item. We also hear they talked to you about it. We want the story on the team, the item, and where they're plannin' to ditch it."

Albrecht's eyes narrowed. "Oh, you do, do ya? That's a pretty tall order. Assumin'--just assumin' that there is such a team and they did come ta me, yer askin' me to rat 'em out. Word gets out I did that, my rep goes in the crapper."

'Hawk started to say something, but Ocelot held up a hand. He'd caught something in the nuances of the fixer's voice that only came from years on the street doing just this sort of testosterone-based negotiation. "Yeah," he said speculatively, "but on the other hand, nobody's gotta know you told us...and I'm sure we can make it worth your while to risk the chance of a little stain to your rep."

Albrecht held up his hands. "Wait a minnit. I ain't said I even seen these guys yet. I'm just bein' hypothetical-like, you know?" There was a glimmer in his eyes that suggested that if continued negotiations were to take place, nuyen symbols--preferably lots of them--would have to be involved.

"Never said you did," Winterhawk said briskly. "But--hypothetically--if you should happen to have seen them--p'raps you could tell us--hypothetically--where you might have sent them, yes?"

The fixer looked back and forth between 'Hawk and Ocelot. "Whaddya wanna know for, anyway?" he asked after a pause. The samurai's guns had not wavered.

"That's our business," Ocelot told him. "It don't matter to what's happening here." Moving slowly so as not to startle the dwarf's bodyguards, he pulled out a credstick and shoved it across the table. "This maybe jog your memory a bit?"

Albrecht looked at the stick, then made a head motion. One of the samurai picked it up and slid it into one of the folds of his coat. "That's a good start," he said, settling back. "It ain't so much the memory as the ethics, ya know? Ya just don't rat on people, or it gets back to ya and--"

"How about two more like that?" 'Hawk interrupted.

The dwarf thought about that for a moment. "Ya know," he said, looking up at the ceiling, "Come to think of it, I don't believe they actually asked me to keep my mouth shut...and it bein' for Harry's boys an' all..." He held out his hand, palm up.

The mage, moving with the same degree of care that Ocelot had exercised previously, removed two more credsticks and put them in the dwarf's hand.

Albrecht glanced up at them and handed them off to the other samurai. "Okay," he said. "You ain't heard this from me. No names, either. New team in town--they got some kind o' hot-drek magic thing they wanna get rid of. Wouldn't say what it was. Decent size team--norm leader, elf, ork, one or two others. They was lookin' for somebody to set 'em up a meet with some pretty powerful fraggers."

"Anybody in particular?" 'Hawk prompted.

Albrecht gave him a dirty look. "Real powerful, pointy-eared fraggers."

"Elves?" Ocelot looked at 'Hawk, then back at Albrecht. "Which elves?" He had some ideas, but he didn't think bringing them up at the moment was a good idea.

"What, I gotta spell it out for ya?" Albrecht protested. "How many pointy-eared fraggers you know got their pictures on money?"

Winterhawk's eyes widened.

Albrecht nodded. "But ya didn't hear that from me. Me, I think they're fraggin' stupid to try gettin' anything outta that bunch, but hey, their cred spends." He drew himself up. "Now get outta here. And tell Harry he owes me one."

"He already knows that," 'Hawk said, almost distractedly. "One more thing, if you would--when and where is this meeting?"

Albrecht paused a moment before answering. "Tonight. Dante's Inferno," he said. "Now out."

Neither of them spoke until they were safely out in the car and driving back toward the middle of town. "Hawk...?" Ocelot finally broke the silence.


"Did he mean what I thought he meant, about guys with their pictures on money?"

"Probably. Apparently our new friends think big, if they're attempting to deal with the Tir Tairngire Council of Princes."

"They're...uh...the one with Lofwyr, aren't they?" Suddenly this was looking much bigger than it had before, and it hadn't exactly been small before.

The mage nodded. "The very same."

"Oh. Good." He took a deep breath. "You know, I was just kidding before, when I said you should piss off Lofwyr. Really."

'Hawk turned to him with a very forced smile. "Hey, cheer up. Maybe he'll just eat the damned thing and that'll be that."

Ocelot didn't answer as the Americar continued on its way into the night.